Cirque du Soleil “ECHO” (Review): What’s in the Box?!

Good news for coulrophobes and furries alike, as Cirque du Soleil’s triumphant new show, ECHO, downplays the clowning and ups the anthropomorphic animals for an enthralling, jaw-dropping, and yes, even funny acrobatic showcase, making for the best new Cirque show in years.

ECHO, which premiered in Montreal in 2023 and recently started a four-month engagement in Toronto, is a marvellous showcase for the innovative production design of British director/designer Es Devlin, whose wonderful production design is matched by the thrilling antics of a brand-new roster of performers and routines. While ECHO‘s story, such as it is, may not entirely cohere, it’s still a breathtaking example of the particular brand of haut cirque the Quebec-based company is known for.

Cirque du Soleil "ECHO" (Review): What's in the Box?!

There’s always a degree of anxiety involved in watching any Cirque du Soleil performance. From the vertigo-inducing heights to the incredible spinning and twirling and flipping that inevitably leaves some audience members watching through their fingers, Cirque has perfected the art of making the effortless look dangerous, and the dangerous look effortless.

This time out, ECHO has at least three show-stopping numbers which take the audience’s collective breath away.

Early on, the Icarian Games sees one performer lie on their back, feet kicking up in the air, while their precariously balanced partner conducts a series of mid-air flips and cartwheels and other death-defying stunts, looking any moment like they might tumble away and right off stage.

A mid-show banquine / human cradle act involves a team of about a dozen performers stacking themselves into human pyramids and then swinging (and, of course, flipping) from one to the other.

And in the finale Teeterboards routine, a team of acrobats flips through the air – and from see-saw to see-saw – in an impeccably choreographed, rhythmic variation on a classic that dates back to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey days.

ECHO has other, slightly less death-defying highlights as well. The multiple aerial routines – one early on, featuring an elegant, dance-like solo performer, then later with a pair of acrobats suspended by their hair(!) – are highlights, but so too is the fantastic juggling routine, which appeared to combine bouncy balls with real oranges in a multi-storey routine which must be seen to be believed.

The little choices at ECHO also stand out. Devlin, best known for her award-winning National Theatre productions in the U.K., teamed up with production director Serge Côté to bring us a production with a far lovelier aesthetic than the often garish Cirque productions of recent years. The show’s trademark, a giant, rotating, pulsing cube which can be taken apart and rebuilt as needed, is primarily put to visual use – very few acts directly require or interact with the cube – but those visuals, which combine video projection with physical props, are spectacular.

The costumes, by Nicolas Vaudelet, are all rather beautiful, combining geometric shapes (mostly for the acrobats) with monochromatic white animal costumes (for the background dancers), each dancer sporting a papier-mâché-like animal head to portray a parakeet, koala, or some other animal. After years of steampunk and psychedelia and discount Maurice Sendak, it’s refreshing to see a Cirque with a more refined, even painterly aesthetic.

Finally, all credit to Devlin and the Cirque team for wisely, if belatedly, giving the clowns something more to do than simply antagonizing the audience and killing time during act transitions. In ECHO, the clowns are acrobats in their own right, with an – I can’t believe I’m saying this – funny running gag about stacking boxes to absurd, ceiling-scraping heights. Whether it’s stomping around on stage on a ladder that doubles as stilts, or adding progressively more and more boxes to a tower until there are some thirty-plus boxes teetering dangerously above the stage, the clowns are – again, I can’t believe I’m putting these words down – a highlight.

Any criticisms of ECHO are relatively minor: the story, as mentioned, isn’t particularly coherent, and it’s saddled, once again, by Cirque’s penchant for casting adult performers as children, forced to run around in suspenders and convey “childlike” through embarrassingly exaggerated facial expressions. The video projections were a bit blurred and low-resolution during the opening number, though the problem became less noticeable once the cube receded and the acts took centre stage. The actual site of the “Big Top”, way out west by Humber Bay Park, is cumbersome to get to (and the post-performance Uber vs. Taxi mayhem unfortunate), but that’s more a function of Toronto real estate.

In any event, this ECHO, already a hit back in Cirque home territory last year, is a stunning achievement, and bound to impress audiences of all ages.

Tickets for Cirque du Soleil’s ECHO can be purchased here.